Friday 26 June 2009

Going green: a confusing business

We are all going green - environmentally green that is. But do we know why? Or how well we are doing? Or indeed, how much is enough.

Yes, we know about carbon emissions. Yes, we know about climate change. No, we don’t want polar bears to go extinct. But these are all relatively vague notions. We can’t see carbon emissions. We quite like it when it’s warm and sunny. But making the link between global warming, polar bears and switching off the lights when we leave a room doesn’t always happen. Wind turbines are wildly popular, but we are pretty much opposed to nuclear power stations; without having clear facts on either.

Am I being unfair? It’s not that I think we haven’t got a grasp on this because we are stupid; more that we are not being given clear data. The green revolution is a confusing business – and little is being done to make it less confusing.

Data, data, everywhere
Don’t get me wrong - I am not saying is that there is a shortage of facts and figures. We overdose on them – they are sprinkled like pepper through newspaper articles, web sites, and news bulletins. All utterly convincing and designed for effect.

Only recently I went to a meeting about London’s energy issues. The headline ran:
London is responsible for around 8% of the UK’s emissions, producing 44 million tonnes of CO2 each year.
It sounded reasonable enough. The evening started with some facts and figures: London is home to 7.5 million people for example. Hang on a minute – that’s 12.5% of the UK’s population. Then you have to add in the effect of tourists, commuters and those passing through the airports, tube network and railway stations. So if our most populous city is producing less than its fair share of emissions, doesn’t that mean that London is already doing pretty well? Of course London doesn’t have a power station, or heavy industry, both of which spew out carbon by the aircraft load.

So I am left with no benchmark as to whether London is doing well or badly in the carbon battle. As the policymakers, scientists and business people who also attended didn’t say, I’m guessing they didn’t know either.

Clear data are important
Having a straightforward and consistent idea of how well or badly we are doing is important. It is crazy to have to do intellectual gymnastics in order to understand the effect of our behaviour on our purses and the planet. And when the experts can’t add it all up, something is badly wrong.

The debate about carbon emissions is everywhere at the moment – from how we create jobs to saving polar bears. Much is without quantifying the problem at either a local, national or global level. So we can’t be surprised when Porsches still overtake me at high speed on the M4 and people don’t insulate their lofts.


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